SO, YOU WANT TO BUILD AN RV PARK!
Preliminary Analysis and Park Design
by Tom Gonser (Updated 07/11)
"Built it and they will come" is a theme made popular by the movie Field of Dreams. But does this theory apply as well to the construction of a new RV Park? We offer a more realistic assessment...
Over the years we've had a continuing flow of inquiries from persons who were contemplating building an RV park. They had invariably found us through the "Park Owners" Section of this website. In many cases they had done considerable research here, reviewing our RVer survey information and a large number of articles that deal with RVer preferences. We have consistently replied that we're not in the business of providing a consulting service to aspiring park owners, although we think in almost every case seeking professional guidance at the outset is extremely important. Where we've been able to provide information or opinion based on our own extensive RV travel experiences, or through exposure to tens of thousands of relevant RVer emails, we've done so. What we've not done, however, is to provide a set of general guidelines for those considering owning or building an RV park. The purpose of this article is to set forth some of the considerations we believe are essential to an analysis of whether building or buying an RV park makes good financial sense; and if so, to identify some of the basic elements of layout and design necessary for a successful project.
(Note: We will limit our comments to RV parks whose primary clientele is the traveling RVer interested in a quality RVing experience. We do not express any opinions on campgrounds primarily serving the needs of tent campers, or RV parks that are predominently serving the needs of "permanent" residents.)
Characteristics of the Business: No doubt every type of business has its own set of characteristics. An RV park surely has its own unique set of attributes. It is unquestionably related to the "hospitality" industry, and needs to be seen in that light. It is a combination product and sevice package -- with the "product" being the quality of the site that is offered, together with the public facilities and attendant amenities; and the "service" is the commitment to providing an efficient, friendly environment that will assure a pleasant guest experience. Both elements are required for an RV park to achieve success. A park with spectacular sites but an uncaring management will never achieve its potential. And similarly no matter how friendly the park's staff may be, if the amenities are inadequate to provide for the basic needs of the park's guests, they'll not come back.
Defining the Target Audience: Many of the inquiries we've seen are from persons who have acquired a piece of real estate and have already reached the conclusion that they want to built an RV park on it. Great Aunt Matilda owned this 20 acre parcel for years, and had bequethed it to its new owner. Said otherwise, the property was often not acquired because of location attributes that suggest an RV park would be the highest and best use. Rather the property's location was simply a happenstance. It is what it is, whether well suited to an RV park or not. And it's the new owner, who perhaps has never been a serious RVer, who reached the conclusion this would be a perfect place for an RV park.
But is it? RV parks usually succeed because they are either (i) located adjacent to high volumes of existing RV traffic, such as along an Interstate, or (ii) because they are close to an existing popular destination area. One might think of these as "overnight" (or "en route") and "destination" RV parks. The overnight park has a steady flow of RVs passing by that are in transit to someplace else. Their guests will ordinarily not be long term stays, but rather just resting from a day's travel, with plans to resume the following morning. Of course successful "overnight" locations can make this one night's stay so pleasant, and show off the inviting special features of the surrounding local area, that many RV guests will be persuaded to stay on for a few more days. And of course thesefolks will plan on stopping on the return trip as well.
The "destination" RV park usually doesn't have access to a continuing high volume of RV traffic within a short distance. Instead this type of park relies on the special attraction of the area -- whatever it is that ensures people in significant numbers will want to make their way to this location, even if it's quite remote. Visitors to Yellowstone National Park will have lots of choices in the small town of West Yellowstone, Montana. And many of the guests there will plan to spend a week or more, and make their RV park their "base camp" for days -- or even weeks -- of exploration. RV parks located along popular coastal areas from Maine to Florida to California, Oregon and Washington will see those areas as a "destination" -- the place they want to get to fairly quickly, because that's where they've planned to spend their time. And of course the ultimate "destination" parks are the snowbird parks of Florida, Texas, and the Southwest, where winter travelers from northern states will go in search of a more moderate winter climate, and often spend several months in one location.
Some locations may not presently enjoy a high level of either "in transit" or "destination" RV traffic. So is this location doomed? Not necessarily, but it is probably challenged. Getting RV traffic to the park will depend upon circumstances that support what will probably be a more expensive marketing effort to attract more RVers to the area.
We dwell on these factors because the imperative first step is to analyze what the target audience of the proposed location of the RV park will be. Is it the overnight traveler? The destination type park? Or might it have elements of both. Understanding the characteristics of the "target audience", i.e. the type and likely motivation of RVers most likely to be attracted to the new park, is a key element in the park design stage which will follow.
The Effect of Seasonality: The analysis which is described above is also useful in helping to forecast the impact of something that is a major concern to most parks -- the length of the "season". Snowbird parks in the Arizona desert climate are packed in February, but virtually ghost towns in August. And many of the RV parks in more northern lattitudes that enjoy a brisk summer season may either be closed or operate with high vacancy rates in winter months. A very few locations will not be significantly affected by the changing seasons, such as for example San Diego, California, that has year-round appeal. Florida is another example of year-round attraction. However most locations throughout the United States will find they have a high demand "in season", and very low occupancy "in the low season". It's important to know just how long the high season will be, because reliable financial projections will depend on a realistic assessment of this factor.
Since most parks will of necessity have to deal with the realities of "low season", it's important to consider what strategies might be available for mitigating its impact. RV parks with good group facilities have the opportunity to appeal to local RV "clubs", and provide promotional events that will attract them in the off season. Seasonal promotional pricing is also an option, and can help pay the electric bill during perods of low occupancy. And many parks have chosen to permit "seasonal" guests to stay for extended periods at favorable rates during the off season, but they are not welcome during periods of peak demand. These long-term guests are often unlike the "traveling RVer" that is the object of the in-season marketing. Long term guests may simply be looking for a "housing solution" that will last as long as possible. For reasons we'll discuss in a future article, the option of using this category of guests to cover periods of low occupancy is not without its risks -- but if done with care it can in some cases provide part of the solution to the challenge posed by the "low season".
What Permits are Required? We've heard predictions that the long term outlook for growth in the number of RV spaces nationally will be restrained because of the increasing difficulty and cost associated with obtaining the necessary permits to build an RV park. Surely if you talk to park owners who have at long last managed to get all the needed permits and begun construction, you'll hear many stories of the time, expense, and challenges of getting these permits. In many communities there will as well be a threshold political issue involved. While an upscale RV park attracting rigs that cost more than the average home in the area might be the park owner's vision, outspoken citizens in the community will paint word pictures of the quintessential "trailer park", with the obvious implication that what will result will be visual blight and the attraction of an undesireable class of persons to the area. Some projects won't survive even this first "public relations" challenge. And those that do will usually find the permits required to launch the project will involve considerable time and expense. The degree of difficulty will vary considerably from one area to another. But any initial planning for a new RV park that does not make a realistic assessment of the challenge of surviving the permit process may be doomed from the start.
What Type of Park is Best? Here we're really talking about matching the location to the target audience. We've addressed above the notion that a park's location will inevitably have a natural clientele somewhere along the scale from "overnight", or "en route" park, on one end, to "destination park", on the other. Many will have characteristics of both, but one is likely to predominate. And that will influence park design and the marketing plan. In either case, another dimension of matching the park to its natural target audience is the tradeoff between price and quality of accommodations. Will your guests be predominantly looking for the lowest price? Or are they more likely be looking for maxiumum creature comforts, with price being a lesser consideration. It would of course not be prudent to built a high end park, which would have to be priced accordingly, only to later conclude that most of the potential guests at that location will be basing their selection of an RV park based on price.
This is of course not an all or nothing assessment. Most RVers will weigh both factors in choosing a park. But in the planning stages of building an RV park it's important that you consider what side of this image you want to be on. It may be tempting to plan to have one portion of the park quite upscale, with large, well manicured sites all offering full amenities; with a bare bones camping area for those looking for "price". But this is often not a good mix. RVers who want an upscale RV site may not be attracted to a park that has a significant number of rigs stacked closely together in an unattractive parking lot style; and those who choose the lower priced bare bones sites will inevitably feel they've been given assigned to an undesireable area. As a consequence both the price motivated RVer and the quality motivated RVer will find something wrong with this picture.
That does not suggest all sites must be equal, however. It has become quite commonplace to find quality parks that have "standard" and "premium" sites. While it may sound like a difference without a distinction, this approach is now quite accepted by most RVers. Many parks do have one area that will always be the most popular. If the property is, for instance, a waterfront parcel, those sites closest to the water will invariably be in greater demand. In recognition of this parks will often design these sites a bit larger, and perhaps with more landscaping. And the price for these sites will reflect those enhancements. So long as the "standard" sites also contribute to the overall pleasant character of the park, a simple pricing differential is not going to be troublesome.
Considerations of Park Design: All too often this is where the planning starts. But until all the considerations enumerated above have been analyzed, the horse cannot properly be positioned before the cart. The suitability of the location, the characteristics of the target market, the potential obstacles (and related restrictions) posed by the permitting process, and the analysis of the most suitable type of park will all impact park design.
Since every property is unique, there is of course no single presciption for the layout of a new RV park. Suffice it to say there is a major trade-off between the size of each site and the number of spaces. Parks designed with the RV traveler in mind will vary from "dense" site spacing and narrow interior roads with a corresponding increase in the number of sites per unit of land, to generously spaced sites and wide interior roads that have correspondingly fewer sites per unit of land. The difference of course will be reflected in the daily rate.
Park design in the age of the new, longer "big rigs", that now come equipped with slide rooms on both sides, will need to provide sites of adequate length and width to earn the increasingly important classification of "big rig friendly" -- and be able to attract that relatively high revenue traffic. While not all sites in a park need to be able to accommodate the largest of today's RVs, unless the percentage is sufficient to cover the anticipated needs of the target clientele this design element is sure to result in a loss of potential revenue in the future. "Big rig friendly" is not only defined by site size, however, but also by the width of the interior roads, the ease of making turns, and the lack of obstructions such as rocks, poles and trees. Overhead clearance is of course also a factor, with tree limbs often being neglected in a park's anticipation of accommodating today's longer, wider, and also taller rigs.
[Ed Note: While the notion of "big rig friendly" is still quite relevant, the economic issues starting in 2008 have resulted in what might be a long term change in preferences for smaller, lighter, more fuel efficient RVs -- primarily towables. This should be taken into consideration when designing a new RV park.]
Only a qualified consultant can provide the assistance needed to ensure a park's layout will conform to the anticipated clientele. And thus the design elements cannot here be prescribed for any particular park. However we can touch upon some of the primary categories and concerns that deserve analysis and consideration:
1. Spacing: We've alluded to site spacing above. An absolute minimum spacing in our opinion would be 25 feet in width. A "comfort" zone begins to open somewhere around 27-28', and 30-35' offers a sense of openness. While site length can vary to accommodate different sized RVs, to be able to attract the business of "big rigs" a length of approximately 75' is needed. And if the anticipated RV traffic is going to be predominently big rigs, a park will need to ensure it has a high percentage of sites that can accommodate them.
2. Site Type: Pull through sites are unquestionably more popular than back in sites, though they are far less "efficient" in terms of space utilization. However they are considered essential by many RVers who are staying only one night and plan on hitting the road again the next day. Motorhome drivers don't want the hassle of unhitching a tow car just for the night. Additionally, more than a few RVers are not confident about backing into a site, and will try to avoid parks that require that they do so. Many parks survive nicely with only back in sites, but they are losing some business by not being able to accommodate those that will place a premium on a pull through site.
3. Ease of Site Access: Back in sites can be made easier for RVs to access if several considerations are made in the basic layout. If the site is at an angle to the roadway, rather than perpendicular to it, RVers will not have such a sharp turn to negotiate. And if the roadway is wide enough to accommodate a long rig's turning radius, that will make the site seem "friendlier" the driver as well. Important too is an interior road design that allows the backing vehicle to turn in the direction of the driver's side of the motorhome or towing vehicle, rather than in the other direction. This is because the driver can actually see the back of the RV in relation to the site as the backing up maneuver is in progress. And finally the site should be free of any side or overhead obstructions. Even a pull through site needs to be free of these same obstructions. Too often one finds a "pull through site" that simply "isn't". One might easily turn into a pull through site, and pull toward the front of the site only to notice a tree, rock, or light pole that will make exiting the site by pulling forward and attempting to turn around the obstacle hazardous at best. The following morning that same RVer may have to detach a tow car, and back out of the site, and then reattach the tow car before leaving. He probably won't be back.
4. Traffic Direction and Flow: As in the planning of a city, the flow of traffic inside an RV park can have positive or negative consequences -- and needs to be evaluated as part of the layout process. The objective should be to distribute traffic as evenly as possible, to minimize any possible congestion and minimize the impact on RV guests. One way traffic can be helpful here, so long as the streets are wide enough to allow big rigs to make all the turns easily. 25' wide one-way roads are appropriate as a guideline. Where two way traffic exists on interior roads they need to be wide enough to allow for safe clearance of two large RVs passing each other in opposite directions -- approximately 30' width here would be appropriate. We'd further note that one way traffic can help even the incidence of RVs and cars driving past individual sites, and ensure that those closest to the entrance don't bear a disproportionate amount of the traffic impact.
5. Road and Site Surface: While RV parks offer all types of road and site surfaces, the higher the grade of that surface the happier the camper. "Paved" interior roadways is one of the descriptors used by the much-used Trailer Life Directory. So too is the descriptor "gravel" or "dirt", where those descriptions apply. RVers like paved interior roads -- or at a minimum well graded interior gravel roads. "Dirt" is shunned by many, especially in climates that one might expect rain on a regular basis. No one relishes the idea of tracking in mud to soil an otherwise prisitine RV -- to say nothing of the chaos this creates for the family pet. Black top on sites can be a nuisance for park owners if heavy rigs with mechanical leveling "legs" fail to place a block under them when they're deployed, as it will soon damage the surface. It's not uncommon to find gravel parking pads with concrete patios. In a damp climate clean, high grade gravel with good drainage can be as effective as paved sites that may tend to create puddles.
6. Level Sites: Our own surveys indicate this highly overlooked characteristic is something RVers take quite seriously. It's difficult for RVers to understand how an RV park can be constructed without paying attention to whether the sites are level -- particularly where the surroundting terrain is essentially flat. Many RVs have no on board system to level the RV. Where a site is not level, these folks will necessarily have to "bring out the blocks" and go through an aggravating series of trial-and-error attempts to make their inside space comfortable. RVs with air leveling systems are quite limited in the amount of slope they can compensate for; and when the slope is excessive, they too must get out the blocks. The bottom line on this one is that this is relatively easy to accomplish in the construction phase, and all too often simply overlooked. Where it is, the park's image is subtly diminished.
7. Utility Connections: RVs always have their utilities on the driver's side. And they are always somewhere in the back 1/3 of the RV. A typical water hose is a 25' length; a typical electric cord is approximately the same length; and a sewer hose is usually either a 10' or 20' length -- although in fact they only stretch easily to about 80% of those ratings. There is simply no excuse for putting utilites other than where most RVs can easily reach them -- yet time and again RVers find that one or more of the utility connections are out of reach. Many of us carry extensions for such exigencies -- but we'll be muttering nasty comments if we have to use them. "Placement" of utilities means more than horizontal distance -- it refers to vertical distance as well. Too frequently we find that hookups are placed on unnecessarily tall posts that are so close to the side of the rig we either can't use our slide room, or alternatively it blocks the doors we need to open to access the coach's utility connections. When that happens, there's more muttering, and further diminution our opinion of the park. Even what must appears to the park owner as insignificant details can become great annoyances. For instance where a sewer connection is placed well above ground level. Guess what doesn't flow uphill... Or take the case of a cable TV connection. We often find them attached so close to the pole they're mounted on that only the tiniest of hands could possibly attach the cable end to it. There are more small items like this than space here permits.
8. Landscaping: A quality RV park invariably has the feeling that one has his or her own defined, private "space". Otherwise you are simply in a parking lot. Studies have shown that RVers seem to develop a very strong "ownership" of their space, as relatively small as it might be. But it must be somehow defined, and hopfully by something more than striping on a blacktop surface. Some parks use some type of privacy fencing for this purpose. It doesn't actually block visual access between sites, but rather creates a sense of "my private place". This is done too with trees and shrubs, though remember the caveat of not letting these become obtrusive of navigating into our out of the site. Landscaping can be anything from simple to elaborate, with all variations in between. Perhaps the best landscaping, in our view, is that which takes advantage of the parks natural setting, so that it "blends in" with the surrounding area, while still providing a measure of privacy and separation.
9. Avoiding Congestion: Some settings we've observed, even though sporting a good design layout, failed to consider where a tow car or towing vehicle would be parked. Where there's insufficient space at the site for a motorhome's towed vehicle, for example, and no designated nearby parking area for it, it inevitably ends up in the street. And that's probably after the RVer first parked it on the lawn, only to be told parking on the grass was not welcomed. As the park fills, so do the streets. And streets which seemed wide with no other RVs around suddenly become narrow -- and even hazardous to navigate. Moreover, corners that once looked like gentle, easy turns suddenly look like impenetrable roadblocks.
10. Security Considerations: In recent years RVer concerns about security have increased. If for any reason a park doesn't feel secure, the occupancy rate is likely to be impacted. It is reasonable to assume that the security factor will play an increasingly important role in the future. RV parks located in more urban areas may have more concerns on this issue than parks located in more remote areas. In extreme situations fencing and a gated entrance may be required. Less populated areas are likely to generate a lower level of security "consciousness" among RV guests -- but it surely cannot be ignored anywhere. Many park locations have natural barriers, such as a shoreline or other topographical features, which should be considered when analyzing the security requirements for a park. Whatever level of security is deemed appropriate, the RV guest needs to sense that the park's management has recognized the importance of providing a secure location, and has taken appropriate (and visible!) steps to provide for it.
What Level of Site Amenities to Provide? While primitive camping will always have its rightful place, it's a fact of life that today's RVer has an expectation of creature comforts while enjoying the RV lifestyle. If there's any doubt about that, consider the phenomenal growth of high end diesel pushers plus towables. These units have virtually every convenience of a modern home, and often then some. Full hookups at the site now means 50 amp service, water, sewer -- and very often cable and an instant phone hookup. The demand for a cable TV connection is still significant, although many RVs will be equipped with their own satellite dish. The demand for a phone hookup at the site, while extremely popular only a couple of years ago, appears to be diminishing. It appears RVers really weren't needing the phone connection to place telephone calls, since they typically have cell phones -- often with rate plans that includes long distance calls. Instead they wanted the increased convenience of data access for their computer -- for doing internet research and for email. At this point phone access has greatly diminished and would be considered relatively unimportant by most. What is most crucial in today's environment is a reliable WiFi service that provides consistently acceptable download speeds of at least .5 - 1.0 Mbps. Increasingly RVers are favoring parks that can meet all of their needs for site amenities, with high speed internet access becoming an increasingly important issue in an RVer's choice of an RV park. Initially it was assumed WiFi would be a fee-based surcharge. However ther trend has favored RV parks furnish "free" wireless access as part of the daily rate structure -- which some parks have discovered they can do at surprisingly low costs. These parks have learned that the marketing potential of offering "free" WiFi far outweighs any fee sharing that would have been available from contracting with an outside provider.
What Park Amenities to Provide? Here again the benefit of thoroughly researching "who is coming" to your new park will be invaluable. If it is primarily young families with children, that will identify one set of attractions -- perhaps a playground, a game room, or a swimming pool might seem to be candidates. But these would be very poor choices if the target audience turns out to be mostly adults without children. While a pool might still be an option, perhaps a spa would do as well. Or a putting green. Perhaps an indoor room to accommodate pool players would be popular. Maybe it's a library, or perhaps it's a "computer room" with several PCs having high speed internet connection for guest use. But never to be overlooked is the natural attraction of the location of the park. If it's on the ocean, it would be the beaches. If on a lake, it could be boating and swimming. If in the mountains, perhaps the views, or a nature trail is what makes the park unique. The Trailer Life Directory is notorious for not considering the benefits of natural attractions, but RVers are very aware of them -- and it influences their choice in RV parks.
Should there be a Clubhouse? Unquestionably RVers are social animals. Many belong to groups of RVers who share like interests, whether it be under the auspices of a chapter of the Good Sam Club, or a dealer or manufacturer sponsored club. Some groups are far too large for most parks to accommodate. Others are as small as just a few rigs. But the "club market" can be an important ingredient in a successful business plan for an RV park. Any park that wants to participate in this segment of the market simply has to have facilities to support the basic needs of the size group it would like to attract. This is usually some sort of common facility available for group use. Typically it would have basic kitchen faciities, to support the always popular RV "pot luck" meal; and it would include the ability to host a group for meetings, whether for club business, or educational presentations, or similar events. The more attractive and extensive the club faciities, the more success it will have in attracting RV clubs for events at the park. Group gatherings not only serve to increase occupancy during peak seasons, but also provide an opportunity to attract local RV clubs to the park during the slow season as well.
Considering High Fuel Cost Impacts: Clearly one important consideration is access to a nearby population center. For the foreseeable future RVers are going to favor "closer" destinations; and places where they will be comfortable staying for longer periods of time. This has negative implications for locations that, regardless of their appeal for other reasons, can only be reached by driving long distances. In all cases RV parks would do well to consider setting aside space for RV storage -- so that RVers can leave their rigs and return on weekends, or otherwise periodically. It's likely that trends in fuel costs might also favor the use of a more significant number of rough cabin spaces for guests without RVs.
Independent Guidance Needed: From the considerations we've identified above, we think most prospective park owners would want to consider seriously seeking some level of guidance and input from someone experienced and qualified as an RV park consultant. This expertise is a valuable resource, and we've identified one source of it elsewhere at this site. The point however is that a realistic assessment of the business potential for a new (or even upgraded existing) RV park requires knowledgeable analysis. And the design stage of any park requires a thorough understanding of what features would be appropriate to that particular location, taking into consideration the characteristics of the "natural market" for that park.
We leave for later publication a further article describing the operational issues that should be addressed to ensure a successful outcome for a new park. In that piece we'll visit marketing strategies and techniques. Included will be some recommendations concerning the park's strategic use of its website -- and the internet -- to get a new park off to a quick start. And we'll explore those management philosophies and techniques that are most suitable to ensuring a park's long term economic success.